‘I can proudly say that I have a lot of Persian pride’

School’s first Persian-Jewish Cultural Day marks Nowruz with food, music and feelings

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BP Photo by Joshua Gamson

CULTURE: Dr. Jonny Ravanshenas and Chazzan Eitan Aharon of Nessah Synagogue led an all-school “Sephardi Party,” minyan in honor of Nowruz. The celebration highlighted school’s Persian-Jewish community with speeches, a musical performance and a traditional breakfast.

By Amalia Zucker, Staff Writer

For the first time in school history, Shalhevet hosted a Persian-Jewish Cultural Day, a school-wide davening, assembly and breakfast celebrating the heritage of the school’s Persian-Jewish students and staff in honor of Nowruz – the Persian New Year.

The date was chosen to coincide with the spring equinox, which is the head of the Ancient Iranian solar hijri calendar and celebrated as the new year. It’s considered a secular holiday and is commonly celebrated by people of Iranian heritage worldwide, regardless of religion or nationality — which includes much of Shalhevet’s student body. Roughly 18% of Shalhevet students are Persian, according to a Boiling Point estimate.

Persian-Jewish Cultural Day was spearheaded and led by Dean of Student Life Dr. Jonathan Ravanshenas.

“I never imagined myself standing up here, onstage, celebrating my Iranian heritage,” Dr. Ravanshenas said in a speech opening the Monday morning assembly. “And now here, in front of all of you… I can proudly say that I have a lot of Persian pride.”I can proudly say that I have a lot of Persian pride.”

Dr. Ravanshenas is known for his leadership of the Sephardic minyan and his general excitement and welcoming demeanor towards Shalhevet’s Persian students and staff, including a recent swag drop, where hoodies with the words “Shali Sephardi Party” on the front and a hamsa on the back were sold.

But the celebration itself was inspired and encouraged by students, through various discussions Dr. Ravanshenas had with them and through the school’s new Persian Club, a student-founded club dedicated to the appreciation and celebration of Persian-Jewish culture.

Upon our arrival at Shalhevet, genuinely, my perspective on our identity has completely changed”

— Kyla Zackary, 10th grade

Club co-founders Kyla Zackary and Hannah Nili were the first students to speak at the assembly. They said that with the help and support of Shalhevet’s Persian staff and student body, they’ve been able to embrace their Persian culture and appreciate their heritage more than when they were younger.

“For years, me and Hannah both – and I’m sure a lot of other Persians – have felt the need to conceal our identities as Persian Jews,” said Kyla, “whether it be because it would inhibit our ability to make friendships in middle school, or because the general atmosphere around us was white.

“Upon our arrival at Shalhevet, genuinely, my perspective on our identity has completely changed.”

Also speaking that morning was Rabbi David Shofet, who is the founder of Nessah Synagogue, a Sephardic shul in Beverly Hills.

Rabbi Shofet shared thoughts on Persian-Jewish culture, the beginning of spring, and the internationalism of Jewish identity.

“There were dynasties, killings, and so many fights and destruction in Iran,” Rabbi Shofet said. “And still, we succeeded…through our faith, through our emunah. That’s the real culture of any Jew, anywhere.”

Several other speakers had a chance to share their thoughts, including Shalhevet junior Jonathan Soroudi, as well as math teacher Ms. Tamara Gidanian and Director of College Counseling Mr. Eli Shavalian.

Mr. Shavalian spoke about his experience as a first-generation American child of Iranian-Jewish immigrants.

“We often are faced at a crossroads where we have to decide what parts of our culture, of our family, of our ancestries do we want to pass down to our future kids and families, and what parts do we want to leave behind,” Mr. Shavalian said.

One of the things he hopes to hold onto is creating a haft-sin – a traditional symbolic arrangement of foods such as garlic and sumac in honor of Nowruz. Ms. Muriel Ohana, Assistant to the Head of School, prepared one of these for the after-assembly breakfast.

Jonathan Soroudi shared a d’var torah regarding King Cyrus the Great of ancient Persia, a leader revered for his kindness to his Jewish subjects, and related Cyrus’s benevolence to breaking out of societal molds.

I remember that [the] Shalhevet community barely knew about Persian history, Persian culture, Persian customs. And today, for the first time in the history of Shalhevet, we are celebrating Nowruz, which is completely Persian.”

— Ms. Tamara Gidanian, math teacher

Ms. Gidanian, in her 15th year as a Shalhevet faculty member, spoke about her pride in seeing the Persian community grow and thrive during her time at the school.

“I remember that [the] Shalhevet community barely knew about Persian history, Persian culture, Persian customs,” she said. “And today, for the first time in the history of Shalhevet, we are celebrating Nowruz, which is completely Persian.”

Sophomores Shamim and Samim Elyaszadeh finished off the assembly with a performance on the daf and tombak respectively – a pair of traditional Persian percussion instruments.

The event was also commemorated with a school-wide Shacharit, hosted in the gym and led by Eitan Aharon, chazzan of Nesach. Parents were also invited to attend. After the assembly, students were greeted with an Iranian-style breakfast on the turf, also prepared by Ms. Ohana, including flatbread, feta cheese, eggs, mint and an assortment of fruit, as well as chai – traditional Persian tea. Students were also given Shalhevet-branded chai mugs.

“What I think is the underlying theme of all this [is] that what binds us together is our Judaism,” Dr. Ravanshenas said in an interview. “So like, we’re Jews first, then we’re Persian.”

He said having culture-focused events was something he wanted to keep doing in order to embrace all kinds of cultural diversity within the Jewish community.

“I think Shalhevet students come in a variety of cultural backgrounds and colors,” he said. “I think that’s what makes our collective community, right? There’s no one student that fits one mold.”

Students both Persian and non-Persian seemed appreciative of the opportunity.

“It was an interesting way to blend cultures,” said freshman Rowan Gever.

Sophomore Maayan Mazar agreed.

“I learned a lot I didn’t already know – it was a very enriching experience,” said Maayan.

Sophomore Rafael Kahen was glad to see his own culture reflected in the speeches, davening and breakfast.

“In elementary we wouldn’t have anything special for Nowruz,” said Rafael. “This was a day that I could, like, relate to, because I knew what was happening.”